Tag Archives: Special Needs

The Importance of Going to a Jewish Camp

This post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

0096_130813-FJC_x_xWhen I was seven years old, I started going to a Jewish overnight camp on the West Coast. I honestly think that had to be the worst experience of my life, but not for the reason you may be thinking. The only reason I didn’t like it was the fact that I have autism. Bottom line, I didn’t fit in. Too bad my family decided we should all go for the next two years. (My mom, who is a rabbi, served on faculty there. Even though they tried their best and my mom was up at camp, things were still really terrible.) However, after moving to Pennsylvania, my family and I learned that there were Jewish camps for kids on the autistic spectrum. My family decided to send me to Round Lake Camp which was also a Jewish sleep-away camp. After going for my first year, each summer was all about camp.

Now, if you have a brother, sister, or child who has autism, you probably know that new experiences cause a lot of anxiety. So, for example, if the simplest bee is scary to them, they might be having a nervous break-down the entire car ride wondering if they’ll be tons of bees at camp. In my case, on the drive up with my dad, he calmed me down by telling me the three main purposes of camp and the importance of each. The first important part of going to a Jewish camp would be that you meet new people and make some friends. Considering my lack of friends, this was a big plus. Also, because this is a Jewish camp, you won’t be the minority anymore which also means that you get to do Jewish activities that aren’t available anywhere else such as Israeli dancing. One of the things I did enjoy at the west coast camp was Israeli dancing and it was something I really missed.

The next big purpose is getting to try new things. This would include new foods such as tomato soup, new activities such as high ropes, and water activities such as the huge water slide. Out of all those things, my favorite wouldn’t be an activity, but the fact that I get to stay in a cabin with all my “camp buddies”. At my first camp, however, because I didn’t fit in, I didn’t feel comfortable in my bunk.  While at Round Lake, everyone in my bunk accepted me and helped me when I was feeling sad.

After my first year, Round Lake was combined with another camp called Cedar Lake. It was also a Jewish camp, but was not for kids on the spectrum. That wasn’t really an issue because we really didn’t come into contact with the Cedar Lake kids that often. Except for Color Wars which is a big competition where both camps were combined and split into four groups. After being split, you compete in different activities. Almost every camp does this activity and I never really liked it.

The last and most important purpose of going to a Jewish camp is what my dad told me before my first year at Round Lake. That would be the ability to learn more about yourself. In other words, that means finding new experiences and finding what you are good at such as sports and science. I learned that I am good at a game called Ga Ga. It’s a game played in an octagonal court with a rubber bouncy ball. The objective is to use your fist or open hand to hit the ball towards the other players (knees or below). If the ball does hit them (in the knees or below), they are out.

All in all, going to a Jewish camp is a great experience because of the friends you’ll make, the new experiences you’ll have, and the memories you will have created. As we say at Cedar Lake/Round Lake, this is “A Home Away from Home.”

 

Posted on February 19, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

5 Reasons Parents Should Send Their Children With Disabilities to Jewish Camp

Copy of WelcomeThis post is part of our series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

I must confess. When I first started working as a counselor in the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England in 1984, I couldn’t understand how parents of children with disabilities could send their children away for eight weeks each summer. Now, after working in the field of disabilities camping for more than 20 years, I have a hard time understanding why parents of children with disabilities won’t seriously consider sending their children to an overnight Jewish summer camp. Of course I understand that it is scary, often far from home, and that the sessions feel “long.” I understand that children with disabilities often can’t effectively communicate their needs, or advocate for themselves. And I understand just how hard it is for parents to be out of contact for a month or two. So why do it? Here are 5 reasons.

1. Camp offers fun, stimulating activities: Simply put, thousands of Jewish children go to camp each summer—and they have a great time. There is no way any parent can offer that level of programming and stimulation in their backyard or apartment. Camping offers children daily doses of the arts, sports, dance, singing, and swimming—not to mention exposure to such electives as nature, cooking, drama (plays in Hebrew!), sailing, woodworking, the climbing wall and more—all before lunch!

2. Camp offers friends and role modeling: If the camp program is part of a larger camp, your child will spend hours a day interacting with a diverse group of children of all ages—both neurotypical and campers with disabilities. What better way to practice and improve social interaction, speech and language skills and more! Camp is a 24/7 social environment with chances to try out various social behaviors—and receive instant feedback. Through these interactions, campers are scaffolded and grow in so many ways.

3. Camp is an all-encompassing Jewish living environment: Campers sing Jewish songs, dance Jewish dances, experience Shabbat, pray through song and movement and interact with a diverse group of Israelis. And Jewish values are alive in Jewish summer camps! Families return to their local synagogues asking if they can incorporate these elements in to their worship services and programming. And campers and staff members return home with understanding and sensitivity toward people with disabilities. And they are life-long ambassadors!

4. Camp is the next step toward independence: Separating is never easy for children and parents.  But children almost always adjust to the camp routine quickly. Campers learn to make their beds, keep their shelves neat, sweep, clean the bathroom, and more. They learn to become even more independent with skills of daily living. And they often try lots of new foods in the dining room—simply because they are on the table! Parents are often amazed with what their children can do when they return from camp.The biggest post camp challenge for parents? Continuing to foster this new found independence!

5. Camp is well-deserved and needed respite for parents! One thing I did not understand that first summer as a teenage counselor was that parents work very hard. Parenting a child with a disability is not easy.  Parents need and deserve a chance to be together as a couple—to sip wine, to go to the beach, or even go to Europe! And they absolutely deserve and need a chance to spend time with their neuroptypical children who also need time and attention.

As we mark Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month in February, we note that camp starts in four months! Space is filling up fast at Jewish camps all across the country. Decide today to reach out to a camp director and begin a conversation about the possibility of your child attending camp. They and you will grow a great deal from the experience!

Find available Jewish camp options for children with disabilities here.

Posted on February 13, 2014

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Jewish Disability Awareness Month

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), which brings a topic that is very important to us at the Foundation for Jewish Camp to the forefront of conversations all over the Jewish community.  JDAM is “a unified initiative to raise awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in Jewish communities worldwide.”  To further the effort, we are running a series dedicated to discussing disabilities at Jewish camp this month.

Kicking off the series is a round-up of some of the most powerful posts by Joel Yanofsky, one of our resident bloggers and father to Jonah, a great teenager and camper on the autism spectrum.

The Plain Old Normal

Saying Yes

It Takes a Village, Like it or Not

Camp Turned My Son Into a Teenager

October Blues

The Truth About Pink

Stay tuned for posts by camp directors, experts in the field, former campers, and more.

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Posted on February 6, 2014

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The What-if Moment

shutterstock_163265741There’s no point pretending this blog post is going to be about camp or summer, especially summer. Montreal in February is no picnic. In the grip of the latest polar vortex, I can’t even remember what a picnic is. This may explain why I sometimes wonder what if I only lived in a warmer climate; if my Russian-born grandparents, who had the foresight to flee the pogroms, also had the foresight to stowaway in steerage until their ship made it to, I don’t know, Miami Beach. In any case, they didn’t and now I stowaway in my house all winter. Even our dog, fluffy as she is, would rather stay in her crate until spring. Like the dog, I’m resigned to enjoying the great indoors. During the winter months, one of those indoor activities is party going. When they’re cold, Montrealers are a particularly sociable bunch; even anti-social types like me can’t duck every invitation.

But parties have their own hazards. At a recent get-together, I found myself making small talk with a woman I’d just met. Inevitably, we got around to discussing our children and discovered we both have fifteen-year-olds. She began describing her son’s efforts to find a good CEGEP – CEGEPs, here, are the equivalent of U.S. junior colleges – once he graduated from high school. I knew, of course, where the conversation was headed and braced myself.

“Your son must be thinking about CEGEP, too,” she said.

“Jonah is on the autism spectrum,” I said. “He attends a special needs school. College isn’t likely to be in the picture.”

A long silence followed; it seemed long anyway. There wasn’t much for her to say. She hadn’t said anything wrong. If anything, I felt a little bad for her. I’ve come to terms with the fact my son has autism, but that doesn’t mean I’m not brought up short, on occasion – reminded all of a sudden that your life, his life is going to be very different from the lives of other people. It’s what I call the “what-if-moment” – the moment you can’t help wondering what if your son didn’t have autism. What would his life, your life be like?

Such questions are at the heart of Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism, the memoir I wrote a couple of years ago about my family. In some ways, writing the book brought me a small measure of acceptance. I don’t sweat the big stuff anymore. Wondering what it would be like if Jonah were headed for college makes as much sense as wondering what it would be like if I were heading out the door with my surfboard.

Still, the small stuff lingers. It would be nice, for instance, if Jonah and I shared an interest in sports, in particular watching sports on TV. Yes, I wish I could instill in my son my talent for being a couch potato – especially around now, Super Bowl time.

The good news is the “what-if” moments don’t linger. It helps, too, that I came up with some trick plays to keep Jonah in front of the big game a little longer than usual this year. Just before kickoff, I made a super-size bowl of popcorn and placed it strategically beside me on the couch. My thinking was: if I could just keep Jonah there until half-time, I knew he’d want to stay for the half-time show. Jonah and I do share a love of music as well as an uncanny knack for knowing the lyrics to popular songs. When he was a toddler I taught him Beatles and Bob Marley lyrics. This past year he’s got me singing along with Pink and Bruno Mars and, on Super Bowl Sunday, I got lucky: the half-time performer was, indeed, Bruno Mars. So, even though the popcorn was finished, Jonah and I sang along with the last song – “Just the Way You Are.” Then after the song was done, I hurried into the kitchen to make more popcorn.

Posted on February 3, 2014

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We Hereby Resolve

joelOn New Year’s Eve, my wife, Cynthia, our son, Jonah, just turned fifteen, our new puppy, Phoebe, five months old, and I gathered around our dining room table to make our resolutions for 2014. The easiest to come up with was Phoebe’s. She resolved to be house-trained by the end of January at the latest. Okay, we came up with that one on her behalf, but I didn’t see much difference between us wanting her to realize her full potential and Cynthia, for instance, wanting to receive more foot massages and back rubs in the coming year. Both are cases of wishful thinking being imposed on others. Both seem, even in the hopeful glow of the New Year, like long shots.

“And what’s your resolution?” Cynthia asked me, as if she really had to. In fact, she and Jonah could both guess mine correctly. “I resolve to be less crabby,” I announced. Even Phoebe looked skeptical.

“A lot less, man,” Jonah added.

Jonah’s new habit of referring to everyone as “man” – that includes his mother and the dog – is, I confess, one of the things making me crabby these days. Jonah is on the autism spectrum and, as a result, he’s always been more likely to pick up verbal tics (or stims, as they’re called in the world of autism) and sustain them for longer than most other kids would. I should be used to this sort of thing by now, but being called “man,” instead of daddy or dad, is driving me a little crazy. It’s like sharing the house with Jack Kerouac. I mean if Jonah has to talk like a 1950s beatnik, can’t he at least call me daddy-o?

Cynthia doesn’t like this new term of endearment much either, mainly because it doesn’t sound that endearing. Still, she reminds me to let Jonah express himself the way he chooses to. Self-expression is hard for a kid with autism so you take it where you can find it. In fact, we take it as a sign of the thing we want most for him nowadays – independence.

His mother and I were terrified the first time we sent Jonah to sleep-away summer camp three years ago, but the main reason we did it was so we wouldn’t always be around to do things for him. To a surprising extent, this plan worked. He became resolved to do more things on his own; we became determined to let him. We remain grateful to his experiences at camp for allowing him and us to see our interconnected resolutions through.

Lately, Jonah insists on going to the corner grocery store on his own whenever we are out of milk or orange juice or green beans. (What can I say? The kid is different; he loves green beans.) The first few times he left for the store I followed him, ducking behind parked cars and recycling bins, as if I were a private detective trailing a criminal suspect. Now, I still worry, but I manage to stay in the house. By the time I finally decide I must head out and find him, he’s invariably on his way back, happily swinging the plastic bag of green beans he just bought.

The other day I also let him take the dog out for a short walk as far as the grocery store. I watched anxiously from the window as Phoebe, still very puppyish, jumped all over him, but eventually they did some walking. Phoebe also did what she was supposed to – some peeing. As for Jonah, he brought her back safe and sound. I couldn’t have been prouder of both of them. When my son got back into the house, I asked him how it went as if I hadn’t been watching him every single moment. “No problem, man,” he said.

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Posted on January 7, 2014

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My Son, His Autism, and My New Appreciation for Hanukkah

shutterstock_161101661Last August, when my son, Jonah, returned from sleepaway camp with a sunburn, an array of nasty-looking mosquito bites, and a desire to water ski again (though this time for longer than a nanosecond), he also had a deepening connection to ritual. At camp, he’d taken to the morning flag-raising ceremonies, the campfire singalongs, as well as the Friday evening Shabbat dinners. I’m guessing that’s what inspired him to insist, this fall, on fasting on Yom Kippur; it was a carryover from his summer of Jewish education. His effort not to eat was, for a 14-year-old with an enormous appetite, remarkable: he made it until lunch.

But then Jonah, who was diagnosed with autism a little more than a decade ago, has always had an affinity for ritual. In fact, one of the early signs of his autism, for me at least, was his habit of lining up his toys single-file from one end of his bedroom to the other. He would have done this for hours if we let him. He could always tell, too, when I switched one toy’s place with another in the line. And, under no circumstances would he tolerate the chaos of double-file or a semi-circle. Eventually, it became clear that Jonah was a lot less interested in engaging in imaginative play with his tiny trucks and alphabet blocks and stuffed animals than he was in giving them an orderly world in which to exist. Which is, come to think of it, the whole point of ritual.

A point, I confess, I’m missing these days. After all, this was the year I deliberately passed on the apple slices dipped in honey on offer at my mother-in-law’s Rosh Hashanah celebration. It was also the first year, since my Bar Mitzvah, that I did not fast on Yom Kippur. My reasons were simple and admittedly childish: I was angry with God. The reason for that was simple, too. My beloved sister died this past August after contracting a mysterious illness and suffering for an excruciating six weeks in the hospital (Jonah came home from camp the day of her funeral) and I was determined to blame God. Childish, like I said, but once my initial anger subsided I had no need to see the world as an orderly place. I’d experienced this kind of thing before, decades earlier, when my mother and father died within two years of each other. When my sister died, I discovered the instinct to be vindictive was – like riding a bicycle – impossible to forget.

But now, it’s Hanukkah and Jonah is all in for the holiday, for the gifts, the candle-lighting, the dreidel spinning and the latkes; and I am doing my best to play along. Still, Hanukkah may be a good way for me to get back on the ritual bandwagon. As Jewish holidays go, it’s innocuous and undemanding. The emphasis is mainly on fun; the mood mainly lighthearted. No great physical, emotional or intellectual demands are going to be made on me. I also can’t help remembering that my late sister loved Hanukkah. She made mouth-watering latkes and, along with my other sister, devoted herself to finding and meticulously wrapping eight special presents for Jonah. It was just one of the many small ways she demonstrated her love for her nephew and also her acceptance of him, which was, from the moment he was born as well as the moment we learned he had autism, absolute and unconditional. So, for the sake of my son and my sister, I’ll put my holiday boycott on hold. The truth is I’ll be doing it for my own sake, too. And while I recognize it’s a lot to ask of any ritual to make the world seem less random, less cruel, it’s probably not the worst place to start.

Posted on December 2, 2013

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The Truth about Pink

When my 14-year-old son Jonah returned from sleep away camp this past summer it was with some surprising new interests. Which is to be expected; it’s also predictable that not all of the surprises would be pleasant ones. I’m referring to some of the songs he has been singing since he got off the bus, specifically the songs of Alecia Beth Moore, the bestselling recording artist better known as Pink. And while I’d like to quote some of her colorful lyrics, here, in this family blog, they are, unfortunately, not fit for a family blog.

Initially, this upset me. For most parents, the dilemma would be a difficult but straightforward one. They could forbid their child to listen to music they deemed in questionable taste and suffer the inevitable consequences. Their child would rebel and be more determined than ever to listen. Jonah, however, is not rebellious. In part, this is a consequence of his having autism. For better or worse, he is more likely to trust us to know what is good for him. Here’s an example of what I mean: everyone in our family is a big fan of the Canadian singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman, whose lyrics will occasionally feature so-called bad words. One song, in particular, on a CD called Between the Beautifuls that Jonah and I listened to repeatedly in the car, was objectionable, so a few years ago I informed him that he wouldn’t be allowed to play the offending track, number seven, until he was a teenager. Whenever the CD was on, he would dutifully skip from number six to number eight. But the day he turned 13, he headed straight for track seven.

Of course, a part of me knows this generational divide is not only a cliché, it’s one of the main reasons we sent Jonah to sleep away camp in the first place. The idea was for him to spend more time socializing with kids his own age and for him to get a closer look at the pop culture world in which they live, something his autism often prevents him from doing.  When it comes to music, though, he’s just about caught up to his peers. But then I like to think his musical taste has always been sophisticated. I’ve been imposing my baby boomer listening habits on him for years; my wife doing the same with her affinity for folk music. He has always been able to love both. Aside from the obvious choices – The Beatles and Bob Dylan – the range can be dizzying: from Tom Waits to Pete SeegerSteely Dan to Joan Baez.

And, now, even an old fogey like me knows, even revels in the fact that Jonah is developing his own likes and dislikes. So when he got back from camp, he and I went out and bought Pink’s latest CD, The Truth about Love. I was right by the way: it’s filthy. I was also wrong: it’s fantastic. Pink uses bad language the way any clever lyricist or writer would: to great effect. Again, I can’t quote from a song like “True Love” but her assessment in it of how the people we love invariably drive us crazy is both crude and spot on. There is also an anthemic quality to some of her songs that speaks specifically to human frailty. “Try” and “Just One Reason” are good examples. But my favorite rousing Pink song is on an earlier CD. It’s called “Raise Your Glass” and serves as a touching and empowering tribute to kids who are different, kids like Jonah: “So raise your glass if you are wrong/In all the right ways, all my underdogs…”

What can I say? I’m not only glad camp introduced Pink to Jonah, but Jonah introduced Pink to me.

Posted on November 4, 2013

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October Blues

It’s only been a month and a half since my son Jonah returned from sleep-away camp and I’m already feeling nostalgic for that brief August interlude when he was on his own and my wife Cynthia and I were on our own. Not just because it was a break for us from the rigors of parenting a child with autism, but it was a break for Jonah from the rigors of being parented by the parents of a child with autism. We can make for a tense trio at times. It’s not just that we all worry about one another; it’s that we all feel the weight of being worried about. In any case, Jonah thoroughly enjoyed his eleven summer days – and ten nights – away as did his mother and I. We’re all especially grateful for how wholeheartedly Jonah was accepted into his summer camp community.

But the summer is over. Fall is here and with it comes a whole new set of worries. After thoroughly enjoying camp, Jonah, who’s 14, is back at school and enjoying it a lot less. Jonah attends a special needs school, here, in Montreal and for most of the last month we have been receiving reports expressing concern about some of the problems he’s having re-adjusting to the routines and pressures of the day. What has followed is what seems like a daily series of phone calls, emails, and texts back and forth and, along with it, an escalation of worrying.

Then, the other day, Cynthia and I arranged to meet with Jonah’s teacher, his psychologist, his social worker, his behavioral technician, the school’s educational consultant, and the principal. A lot of good will and hard work went into this get-together. There were reassurances the school would keep trying to figure out what was going wrong and what could be done to address making Jonah feel better about his environment. There was also a willingness to hear whatever feedback my wife and I had to offer about what might work best with Jonah. Even so, I confess I was only listening half the time. The rest of the time I was thinking about how much I hated these meetings, all these meeting we’ve had over the years to try to help Jonah fit in, be accepted, flourish. It’s one of the things parents of so-called neurotypical children don’t always understand about being the parent of a child with autism: it seems like you can never make a decision or solve a problem without consulting a dismaying array of experts, often experts who, when it comes to the mysteries of autism, are just guessing. It’s no wonder there are times you don’t feel like a family so much as a lab experiment.

I don’t know about Cynthia but I always end up feeling the same way at these meetings: like I’m the one back in school, experiencing that familiar back to school dread, the troublemaker about to be called on the carpet for whatever it is I’ve done wrong.

What have I done wrong? And what should I have done differently? When you are the child of a parent with autism or any special needs you spend a lot of time asking yourself some variation and combination of these questions. It’s no wonder I find myself missing those relatively worry-free days Jonah spent at camp. This October, they seem so long ago.

Posted on October 7, 2013

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Camp Turned My Son into a Teenager

0378_120808-FJC_x_xA few weeks ago, in a parking lot in Montreal, with hip-hop music blaring from oversized speakers, and lanes delineated for a fleet of buses to pull into, I found myself waiting with 200 or so other parents for my son Jonah to return from sleep-away camp. It was hardly a Norman Rockwell painting, but there was still something timeless about the feelings of anticipation and excitement that were as palpable as the humidity in the August air. Jonah had only been away 10 days but it felt longer. Of course, if I’m being honest, it also felt like it went too fast. It’s always a little surprising how quickly my wife and I are able to adapt to life on our own. Still, we missed the kid and, like everyone else in the parking lot, we could hardly wait for his bus – Senior Boys – to finally arrive.

But we were also, we knew, different from other parents. Jonah, who’s 14, is on the autism spectrum and while we were hopeful he had a good time, first of all, we were even more hopeful he’d gained some new measure of independence at camp. We care a lot less about whether he learned to water ski then whether he learned how to do the simplest things, things other parents take for granted – like learn to eat a new food or maybe just hold a five-minute conversation with a bunkmate. And while most parents with teenagers are trying to find ways to keep their kids closer, hoping, in vain, that they won’t change too much, we’re continually hoping Jonah will come home after being free of our inevitable worrying about him and start pushing us away. We hope he’ll begin to understand it’s his job to change.

In her recent memoir, Next Stop: An Autistic Son Grows Up, Washington D.C. journalist Glen Finland writes about her heroic and poignant efforts to help David, her 21-year-old son on the spectrum, learn how to navigate the city’s subway system and, much more important, learn to be an individual, an adult. But, of course, it’s Finland who has to learn, while writing the memoir, how to be on her own: “After decades of being my intellectually disabled son’s advocate, how could I just shut off my dependency on his dependency on me?”

It was a question I was asking myself as the Senior Boys bus finally arrived in the parking lot and Jonah exited a little shyly. He had a deep suntan and an array of mosquito bites on his arms, legs, and neck. He had a growth spurt this summer and was already taller than me by the time he left for camp, but he seemed to tower over me now. He had the beginnings of a mustache before he left but I could also see whiskers on his chin and a significant accumulation of pimples on his forehead. Jonah can be hard to get information out of at the best of times, but he seemed quieter than usual. And, maybe it was my imagination, but it also seemed like the things he wasn’t telling us were not just things he couldn’t be bothered to tell us, but things he decided not to tell us. He was acting, in other words, just like a teenager.

My wife caught up to the camp director and Jonah’s shadow and they told her that Jonah had a fantastic time. He didn’t make close friends, but the kids at the camp liked him and accepted him on his own terms. He was, my wife was assured, independent, pretty much. Oh yeah, he also tried lasagna and water-skied. Jonah wanted to get home for lunch – definitely not lasagna, we assured him – so we didn’t linger. But then just as my wife and I were driving out of the parking lot, my son realized he did have something important he wanted to tell us, after all. A decision I’m guessing he’d reached on the bus and on his own. “Next year,” he said, “I’m going to camp for the whole summer.”

Posted on September 3, 2013

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It Takes a Village, Like It or Not

After my son, Jonah, was born, our family – Jonah, my wife, Cynthia, and I – became a self-sufficient little island. We were busy; we were also besotted with each other. Our motto, if we’d had one, could have been lifted straight from the classic swashbuckling novel, The Three Musketeers. That’s right: “One for all and all for one.” And while we were lucky enough to have lots of support and help in Jonah’s first few years from immediate family – Cynthia’s parents and my sisters, in particular – we were, for the most part, on our own and liked it that way. Then, just before Jonah turned four, he was diagnosed with autism and our little island was transformed, practically overnight, into a complicated and crowded place, a place we would soon realize we could no longer manage on our own.

joelAny parent of a child with autism knows the feeling: suddenly, you’re at the mercy of a growing list of so-called experts – psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, educators, speech therapists, occupational therapists, you name it. There are also books to read, organizations to join, bloggers to follow. All of this to say that the notion that it takes a village to raise a child isn’t always as reassuring as it sounds. Eventually, though, you grow used to it. You are now a part of the autism village. Eventually, you also come to appreciate, often treasure, those individuals in your child’s life who are making things easier for him and, by extension, you. Mike Picciuto is such a person. We met him last year when he became the assistant teacher in the class Jonah attended at Summit, a special needs school in Montreal. Actually, before we met him, we’d already heard a lot about him, from Jonah, who talked about this “Mike-fellow” practically non-stop. Parents of children with special needs learn to be pretty good judges of those rare people who can connect with their kids and it was obvious, from the start, that Mike and Jonah were a good fit. We also got lucky since Mike had just the kind of skill-set we were looking for, in addition to patience, kindness and firmness, he’s a pretty good musician and, with him, we found the guitar teacher for Jonah we had been having some trouble finding. The two play together one hour a week, but Jonah is constantly calling Mike on the phone for his practice instructions. In fact, the calls are probably a little too constant, but Mike has yet to complain.

We also found, in Mike, a shadow who could attend sleep-away camp with Jonah. Cynthia and I were understandably nervous when we took Jonah to the bus last summer to send him off for what would be his first real, extended time away from home and I doubt we could have done it if it weren’t for the fact that Mike was going too. It’s probably important to add, here, that sending a shadow to a sleep-away camp with your child can be prohibitively expensive. You have to pay his salary as well as the camp tuition.* Indeed, it is one of those areas where help from “the autism village” might also come in handy. Cost notwithstanding, though, Mike made it possible for Jonah to have a great time at the Camp B’nai Brith near our home in Montreal. And when Cynthia and I picked Mike and Jonah up after the week was over, it was also clear Mike had a great time, too. He was quickly accepted into the camp’s structure and activities and, to hear him tell it, he learned an awful lot – especially about being Jewish.

0900_110812-FJC_x46A Canadian-Italian and a Catholic, Mike admitted to me he wasn’t sure what to expect from a Jewish summer camp, but, in the end, he added, it turned out to be “one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had outside my comfort zone.” He had a crash course in Jewish traditions and rituals, everything from the Wailing Wall – “I’d never even heard of it before” – to Shabbat dinner. “There was a rabbi at CBB who I asked an awful lot of questions. He never hesitated to answer me. I learned something new every day,” Mike told me. “And that one Friday night, the Shabbat dinner, I spent at CBB with Jonah was a real education for me. It was a reminder of how important it is to hold onto your heritage. And not just by saying you have to do this or that, but by explaining all the rituals and all the reasons for doing them. I also liked how much Jonah enjoyed that evening. We sang a lot on that night and I was glad I could be there to help him be a really important part of the Jewish camp experience.”

*Please note, each camp has their own policies and this may not be true for every camp.

Posted on May 6, 2013

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